Maricopa County Recorder Prepares For Upcoming Elections

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2019 - 12:16pm
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019 - 3:53pm
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Alonso Parra/Maricopa County Recorder's Office
Adrian Fontes

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Every election cycle includes some bumps in the voting process, and those can include extremely long lines, thanks to a reduction in places to vote, or something relatively minor, like a polling place being locked when voters show up first thing in the morning. Regardless of that level of challenge though, elections directors and county recorders look to modify what they do and possibly learn from what their peers are trying. That's part of what brought Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes to Washington D.C. earlier this month to be on a panel for the Bipartisan Policy Center's event called "The Voting Experience: 2018 and the Future." Mr. Fontes is here with me to talk about the panel and what was discussed. Adrian, there are three factors you talked about in Washington when it comes to a successful election: accuracy, cost effectiveness, and speed. How do those fit into the equation for you?

ADRIAN FONTES: Yes. These are three things — I guess, three menu options — that you have in the general school of elections administration. You can have, again, accurate elections, you can have fast elections, you can have inexpensive elections, but you only get to pick two. You can't have all three at the same time. And it's sort of one of those truisms among elections administrators that we learn when we go to these things and we talk to each other around the country, sort of that idea has really developed over time, and we actually talk about that a lot when we're trying to figure out how to put systems together, how to improve systems that already exist and try to figure out, well, what are we going to sacrifice? And you know nine times out of 10, we're going to sacrifice speed because we want accuracy and we know that we have limited budgets and we have to pay close attention to, you know, allocating the public's funds properly and appropriately. Again, if we wanted really, really fast results on everything, yeah, you know, if I had a big enough budget, we could do that. But, you know, we have limited resources, so we've got to make do with what we've got.

GOLDSTEIN: What are some incremental changes you could see? I thought it was interesting when you mentioned the possibility of precincts. Do we need precincts, or at least, broaching the question, can you clarify that?

FONTES:  Yeah, well what we were talking about was the idea of reporting on election night. And what I mentioned was, you know, we get our 8:00 p.m. report is really early ballots. That's the stuff we counted before Election Day. Then we have, through the evening, precincts coming in at like, we'll do 8 percent, then 24 percent, then whatever percentage as the night goes on to 100 percent but then we're stuck with this, you know 500,000 or 600,000 ballots of the other early votes that we hadn't gotten to yet and the ones that were brought in on Election Day. And so the election is nowhere near over. And yet because of precinct based polling and reporting, we're showing 100 percent reporting, but we still have all these ballots out there. So you can have easily these crazy mythologies come up like, "Oh they found a bunch of ballots." Well no, we didn't find them. They were there. But when you report precinct based results and you report that at 100 percent, the obvious expectation is — and it's a reasonable expectation — that's the end of the reporting. And so people think the election's over and that's just not the case. So the idea that I was talking about was, should we still be anchored to this idea of precincts? Should we still, particularly since we look at our addresses by longitude and latitude and the vast majority of our voters are voting by mail anyway and we could have the capacity to go to vote centers across all of Maricopa County, why do we have precincts? Like, why do we really need them when we can get every voter their ballot in any location they want to go vote at. That's entirely possible, so just the idea, the conceptualization of precincts in the first place, that's one of those environments where you can talk about those things and people will say, well yeah that's really, you know, it's a good question.

GOLDSTEIN: We know that 2018 turned out very well. Now there were just a couple of blips but there were complaints about but now I'm confused where I need to go. Do you take that out if precincts go away?

FONTES: I think to a degree, you do. It might be a little easier. Moreover precincts — and not to disparage you know the work that that's done, and again I'm not like plus or minus either way, I really not taking a position here — but precincts are a creature of the administrative process of running an election. The reason we had precincts in the first place was to get as many like-eligible voters in the same place so we could pre-print their ballots and hand them to them as they walk in. Well A. we don't do that very much anymore and B. we can kind of print anybody's ballot anywhere. So do we really need it still? It's just a good question for conversation.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think that we've gotten to the point of being so impatient? You mentioned how you had these hundreds of thousands of ballots didn't just pop up from nowhere, people should know how the system works. Do we in the media have short memories, does the public have short memories?

FONTES: Yes. Both, and that's okay. You know, look, this is a learning process and elections don't happen every day for everybody, except us. Those of us who actually do elections, we’re in it all the time. Every single day we think about these things and try to make them better and try to find better solutions. And one of the difficulties is this idea of communicating more clearly and educating folks more thoroughly so that we don't end up in these situations, you know. Again, one of the biggest complaints we had was, why is it taking so long to get results, as you mentioned. It didn't take long. In fact, it took a lot less time than it usually does, given the volume of ballots that we had, but because of the closeness of the races, because of particularly the Sinema-McSally Senate race, a lot of people around the country had their eyes on that, and they wanted the results right away. I guess a good way to say it is, I'll forgive you guys this cycle, but don't forget for 2020.

GOLDSTEIN: Does it make sense for a county, does it make sense for a state to do some sort of cleaning up of the voter rolls? Should we reassess whether mail-in ballots need to be mailed in or whether they can be dropped off, that sort of thing? Are these things even worth discussing?

FONTES: Well, I think everything's on the table. I mean we've got so many changes in technology, the data that's available to us through a variety of different state and federal databases, the way that we handle information, the speed with which we can make accurate changes now — all of those things are very different and they have an impact across the board on everything that you just mentioned. So to sort of sit back and say, okay, we've got it figured out and then tinker around the edges, that doesn't make a ton of sense all the time because we just don't know what the next big technology is going to be that comes out that helps us help the voters. I mean at the end of the day when you look at a lot of what we're dealing with or a lot of these different things, like cleaning up the voter rolls and things of this nature, we have folks across the spectrum that we have to depend on and everybody's got to pull their weight. Quick example: you know, my driver's license doesn't expire until 2034, but if we're using motor vehicle databases as part of the motor voter law, we've got a really interesting circumstance there, because if I die before then, is the motor vehicle department going to take my name off of their list, and if I'm using that list as a check on voter registration? So there's a lot of pieces to this puzzle and only the folks who pay attention real closely have the full picture. But we certainly welcome you know input and want to make sure that we're doing, you know, at the end of the day it's all about the voter experience.

GOLDSTEIN: Adrian Fontes is Maricopa County recorder. Good to see you. Thanks for coming in.

FONTES: Thanks for having me.

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